11 February 2020

Talking Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Research with Gail Crowther

The following is a Q & A with Gail Crowther, author of many wonderful essays and books on Sylvia Plath. Her current project is a joint biography under the working title of Kicking at the Door of Fame, which explores the social rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. The book is under contract with Simon & Schuster.

1. What was your familiarity level like with Anne Sexton before you started working on Kicking at the Door of Fame?

I wasn't as familiar with Sexton as Plath. I had read many of her poems and I'd read the Diane Middlebrook biography. I'd also visited her house in Weston and had a few extra dry martinis in The Ritz back in 2011. But my knowledge of her was mostly based on those moments when her life and work collided with Plath's, so she was less familiar to me as a woman and poet in her own right.

2. As you researched Sexton, did anything surprise you about her work, life, character?

Many many things surprised me about her and they kind of run parallel with Plath in a way. First of all, while appreciating her complexity, like Plath, her humour seems to have been massively overlooked. Working in the archives at the Harry Ransom Center, I was constantly chortling and laughing out loud, mainly at her letters. Working in the archive also brought home to me just how hard she worked and crafted her poems, and how hard other people saw her work – sometimes re-writing a poem twenty or more times until she was happy with it. I also got a real sense of what she was up against – male critics, sneery reviewers, because she was a woman daring to write about her lived experiences. I saw how that hurt her and how despite that she carried on writing with huge amounts of bravery and courage. But as I mentioned, there was also a complexity about her that I sometimes found quite difficult to handle. She could be the kindest and cruellest person. She could be the most loving person, then the nastiest. Her own childhood was complicated, and in some cases, traumatic, and she passed that onto her own children. These are very difficult, sensitive topics, but ones that have to be confronted with honesty and compassion.

3. In the archive, did you get a sense of Sexton that is different from Plath, whose archive as we know is so split up between repositories?

No I don't think so. Obviously Sexton was a very different character. More flamboyant than Plath and certainly I think more socially daring. But the experience of being in the archive was just as immersive. I read her letters and poems, handled her personal effects, and listened to her speaking and singing (drunkenly). It was an intense five days and I felt very sad saying goodbye to her. I guess if anything the main difference is when I first went into the Plath archives I already felt as though I 'knew' Plath (whatever we mean by that as a reader) whereas with Sexton I felt I got to know her much more through her archive, so perhaps that was the biggest difference.

4. Why do you think Sexton scholarship isn't as robust as Plath's? Or is it and I'm just not paying attention?

I think it is as robust, but it is just not as prolific. I don't know the reason for that. Certainly in the UK it may well be because, astonishingly, her books are out of print. It's a difficult question really. I suspect there are a number of interlinked reasons; researchers, writers, marketing, publishers…

5. Looking at their work... Which first book ranks higher: Sexton's To Bedlam and Part Way Back or Plath's The Colossus? And, whose second book was better: Sexton's All My Pretty Ones or Plath's Ariel? Or are these unfair questions?

Haha you're not going to draw me on that one! I think to rate their books in that way does Plath and Sexton a disservice, mainly because I think we should see them as two women who were trying to achieve very similar goals. Once they realised this, they offered each other support and encouragement. And they both influenced each other massively – initially Sexton on Plath, and then after Ariel, Plath on Sexton. I like to see their poems running alongside each other, playfully exchanging ideas and moods, each impressed by the other, a sort of symbiotic poetical sisterhood sticking two fingers up at dreadful societal norms.

6. From where you began the idea for Kicking at the Door of Fame (the concept, the proposal, etc.) to now, has anything changed about the way you envisioned this book appearing?

Yes, I guess any book transforms and changes as you start work on it, and sometimes even with the best planning in the world, as you begin to write, new ideas occur, or you see links and patterns that didn't appear at the planning stage. For me that's the exciting part of writing, feeling something coming into being and not being too rigid about it. In the case of writing about Plath, there is the emergence all the time of new material as well, and so that can really add new information or perspectives as it becomes available. I expect that more changes will happen the further I get into the book and then my agent, Carrie, and editor, Alison, will also bring new angles, so it's an ongoing process, flexible, collaborative, but ultimately, always, celebratory.

Thank you, Gail. We all wish you continued inspiration as you work on Kicking at the Door of Fame.

Books by Gail Crowther:

All links accessed 25 January 2020.

1 comment :

Jacqueline said...

I, for one, am thrilled as you reveal details from the Rosenstein archive. I naively assumed there couldn't be yet more Sylvia information. By all means, take your time, man. We Plath fans aren't going anywhere. And I'm certain I speak for everyone in thanking you for all of your hard work to date.

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Publications & Acknowledgements

  • BBC Four.A Poet's Guide to Britain: Sylvia Plath. London: BBC Four, 2009. (Acknowledged in)
  • Biography: Sylvia Plath. New York: A & E Television Networks, 2005. (Photographs used)
  • Connell, Elaine. Sylvia Plath: Killing the angel in the house. 2d ed. Hebden Bridge: Pennine Pens, 1998. (Acknowledged in)
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives." Plath Profiles 2. Summer 2009: 183-208.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives, Redux." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 232-246.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 3." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 119-138.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 4: Looking for New England." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012: 11-56.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. "These Ghostly Archives 5: Reanimating the Past." Plath Profiles 6. Summer 2013: 27-62.
  • Crowther, Gail and Peter K. Steinberg. These Ghostly Archives: The Unearthing of Sylvia Plath. Oxford: Fonthill, 2017.
  • Death Be Not Proud: The Graves of Poets. New York: Poets.org. (Photographs used)
  • Doel, Irralie, Lena Friesen and Peter K. Steinberg. "An Unacknowledged Publication by Sylvia Plath." Notes & Queries 56:3. September 2009: 428-430.
  • Elements of Literature, Third Course. Austin, Tex. : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 2009. (Photograph used)
  • Gill, Jo. "Sylvia Plath in the South West." University of Exeter Centre for South West Writing, 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Helle, Anita Plath. The Unraveling Archive: Essays on Sylvia Plath. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007. (Photographs used, acknowledged in)
  • Helle, Anita. "Lessons from the Archive: Sylvia Plath and the Politics of Memory". Feminist Studies 31:3. Fall 2005: 631-652.. (Acknowledged in)
  • Holden, Constance. "Sad Poets' Society." Science Magazine. 27 July 2008. (Photograph used)
  • Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women, Motion Picture. Directed by Rachel Talbot. Brookline (Mass.): Jewish Women's Archive, 2007. (Photograph used)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Karen V. Kukil. The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962. New York: Anchor Books, 2000. (Acknowledged in)
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 1, 1940-1956. London: Faber, 2017.
  • Plath, Sylvia, and Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil (eds.). The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2, 1956-1963. London: Faber, 2018.
  • Plath, Sylvia. Glassklokken. Oslo: De norske Bokklubbene, 2004. (Photograph used on cover)
  • Reiff, Raychel Haugrud. Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar and Poems (Writers and Their Works). Marshall Cavendish Children's Books, 2008.. (Images provided)
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'A Fetish: Somehow': A Sylvia Plath Bookmark." Court Green 13. 2017.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'I Should Be Loving This': Sylvia Plath's 'The Perfect Place' and The Bell Jar." Plath Profiles 1. Summer 2008: 253-262.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "'They Had to Call and Call': The Search for Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3. Summer 2010: 106-132.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "A Perfectly Beautiful Time: Sylvia Plath at Camp Helen Storrow." Plath Profiles 4. Summer 2011: 149-166.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Proof of Plath." Fine Books & Collections 9:2. Spring 2011: 11-12.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Sylvia Plath." The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath. London: British Library, 2010.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Textual Variations in The Bell Jar Publications." Plath Profiles 5. Summer 2012.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "The Persistence of Plath." Fine Books & Collections. Autumn 2017: 24-29
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "This is a Celebration: A Festschrift for The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath." Plath Profiles 3 Supplement. Fall 2010: 3-14.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. "Writing Life" [Introduction]. Sylvia Plath in Devon: A Year's Turning. Stroud, Eng.: Fonthill Media, 2014.
  • Steinberg, Peter K. Sylvia Plath (Great Writers). Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004.